Blah blah blah sophomore slump blah blah blah there’s no “Time to Pretend” here blah blah blah they’ve been hanging out with the Flaming Lips and it shows blah blah blah pretentious blah blah blah meh.
Well. That was easy.
I think that nicely sums up what I’ve heard and read about MGMT’s second album, Congratulations. If I sound like I’m unimpressed with the early notices on the album, that’s only partly true. I don’t know how you can write about MGMT and not discuss the brain-shattering slice of pop perfection that is “Time to Pretend.” It put them on the map and it is an amazing song. So I’m not troubled by reviewers pointing out that there is nothing on Congratulations like “Time to Pretend.” What troubles me is the idea that there are MGMT fans that honestly want more of that and nothing else. What kind of fan wants the bands they love to stagnate entirely? I mean, apart from AC/DC fans, who have lovingly swallowed the exact same record about twenty times (no hating here – there is a soft spot in my heart for AC/DC and most of it is occupied by “Who Made Who” and the IQ-droppingly simple “Thunderstruck”).
In all honesty, I did not find MGMT’s debut to be the solid gold pop masterpiece that other people did. I thought it had about five really great songs on it and the rest bored me to tears. So perhaps I’m more receptive to MGMT’s Bold New Change in Direction (note: this “change” is neither “bold” nor all that “new” – yet it is welcome) than others, but I’ve found a lot to like on Congratulations. Like Wolf Parade’s Kissing the Beehive, it’s an album that rewards you for listening to it straight through. I know that makes it hard to pick the hits off of iTunes, but fuck iTunes. MGMT needed to grow beyond Oracular Spectacular to avoid becoming unbearable and if they had to get a little pretentious to do it, so be it.
The really impressive feat on Congratulations, at least to me, is that Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden managed to combine a lot of things I don’t like – namely surf rock and psychedelic 60s hippie bullshit (think Jefferson Airplane; I know a lot of people think Grace Slick had an amazing voice, but their songs give me a fucking headache) – into something I enjoy more every time I hear it. And, as their performance at Coachella proved, the new songs are not really jarring next to their best old stuff (even “Time to Pretend” – I often wonder if Van Wyngarden and Goldwasser are sick of playing that song).
To my ears (the only ones that matter ’round here), Congratulations has two distinct musical advantages over Oracular Spectacular: nuance and texture. MGMT have always been adept with melodies, but on this album they’re not afraid to let the melodies emerge from the sea of musical awesome upon which the songs are carried. Which brings me to my next point: by using electric organs, flutes, and other instruments that usually piss me off in rock songs, MGMT have provided a much more dynamic foundation for their songs about… well, whatever these songs are about.
I’ve read that Goldwasser and Van Wyngarden (sounds like the name of a pricey law firm, doesn’t it?) were striving to make an album that you have to listen to from start to finish (i.e., a single-less record), but I have no idea how you really do that unless you make the whole album one long track. That temptation may have led to the overlong (but by no means deal-breaking) “Siberian Breaks”, but there are still distinctly catchy songs on Congratulations. It’s just that, unlike “Time to Pretend,” they don’t announce themselves from miles off, making sure you’re hip to every moment of their majesty. Congratulations seems content to stand on its own merits where Oracular Spectacular felt like it wanted everyone to love it (pretty much everyone did) and, philosophically, I’m in Congratulations‘s corner on that one.
It would be overstating it (as other reviewers have, in my opinion) to suggest that you won’t like Congratulations if you were deeply smitten by Oracular Spectacular. It’s not a divorce situation where you have to choose which parent to live with. I like most of Oracular Spectacular and almost all of Congratulations (“Siberian Breaks” is pretty much five or six fragments of songs arbitrarily pasted together. Parts of it are good, but a lot of it is unnecessary. I’m a Yo La Tengo fan, so I’m used to dealing with songs that would be brilliant if they were about five minutes shorter) and I’m not suffering any cognitive dissonance. It might be a matter of how immediately accessible you like your pop music. I’m loathe to use phrases like “let it wash over you,” but I think Congratulations was designed to do just that. If you’ve got some time, it’s a great album to throw on your headphones (real headphones, not those tinny piece-of-shit earbuds the kids are into nowadays. How the hell can you stand to have those things in your ear? Not only do they cause me pain, they remind me of that scene in The Wrath of Khan where Chekhov gets the buggy thing put in his ear. Every time I wear them, I think of that scene. And I’ve never found earbuds that didn’t sound like shit. Real headphones: twenty bucks. Painlessly hearing music: priceless) and just listen. “Siberian Breaks” notwithstanding, it’s a pretty brief album and there are plenty of standout tunes (“Flash Delerium” is my current favorite – it’s a delightful little freakout).
After seeing MGMT at Coachella, I turned to my friend Tim and made an assertion followed by a prediction. The assertion: Congratulations is a much better album than Oracular Spectacular. The prediction: fewer people will buy it. Of course, because of that assertion that Congratulations is a good album, I sincerely hope my prediction is wrong.